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Final Shuttle hookup an emotional one

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- As the miles melted between Atlantis and the International Space Station, the emotions grew, in orbit and on the ground.

At Mission Control yesterday, lead flight director Kwatsi Alibaruho declared, "This is it," as he gave the OK for the final docking in space shuttle history. Flashbacks to the shuttle's very first space station docking, with Russia's Mir in 1995, flooded his mind. He was a NASA trainee back then.

About 240 miles above the Pacific, the station's naval bell chimed a salute, one of many landmarks, or rather spacemarks, of this final two-week shuttle mission that are being savored one by one.

"Atlantis arriving," called out space station astronaut Ronald Garan Jr. "Welcome to the International Space Station for the last time." "And it's great to be here," replied shuttle commander Christopher Ferguson.

Cries of joy and laughter filled the connected vessels once the hatches swung open and the 10 space fliers altogether representing three countries exchanged hugs, handshakes and kisses on the cheek.

Atlantis, carrying a year's worth of supplies, is being retired after this flight, the last of the 30-year shuttle program.

"I won't say that I got close to welling up in the eyes, but I will say that it was a powerful moment for me," Alibaruho told reporters later. He said the moment was also powerful for the 10 people in space for the docking: six Americans, three Russians and one Japanese. -- AP